Marvel’s Midnight Sun’s review: the best Marvel game yet
For the last ten years, the XCOM designers at Firaxis have dealt with “ifs” and “maybes”. If this shot lands, then maybe I can pull off this carefully calculated plan I’m working on. It’s exactly the kind of tight, knife-edge excitement we’ve come to love and expect from their turn-based strategy games, but Marvel’s Midnight Suns takes a different approach. As the titular demon hunters team up with some familiar Avengers faces to take down the evil sorceress Lilith and Marvel megavillain Chthon, there’s never any question as to whether or not your moves will work here. You play as the world’s most powerful superheroes. Of course they have to work. And forget about crawling behind knee-high cover walls either, because if you’re not already bulletproof, you’ve certainly got the reflexes and supercharged muscle mass to soak up anything Lilith’s Hydra minions are going to throw at you.
The question is, do you risk upsetting the delicate balance between risk and reward by tipping the scales of power in your favor in this way? At first glance, it’s easy to think that a more reliable set of heroes would end up dulling what made Firaxis’ XCOM games so special, but the result is something just as exciting. Given how the Marvel machine has drawn in and chewed up so much outstanding creative talent in the wider MCUniverse, Firaxis emerging with its faith intact is nothing short of extraordinary. Not only have they withstood their radioactive spider bite, they’ve come out bigger and better for it, creating not only the best Marvel game I’ve played, but one of the best superhero games out there.
The key behind both of these things – strategy and supes – lies in the tightly designed battle arenas. With cover removed from the equation, it paves the way for some brilliant Into The Breach-style puzzle boxes, where crowd control and manipulation of enemy positions are the order of the day. You’re handed a set of tools, in this case a deck drawn from the trio of superheroes you bring into battle, as well as a smattering of interactive objects on the map itself, but how you combine them for maximum damage is very much up to you you.
The joy of Midnight Suns is twisting and bending the ruleset to your advantage, seeing how far you can stretch a single turn before giving in and calling it a day.
Part of this is dictated by what cards you have in your hand. Each hero can bring eight cards into a match, but you only get to play three from your entire deck in a given turn. Well, if you play it strictly by the book, that is. While missions often see you clearing out enemy forces, they are often packed with other objectives such as retrieving or protecting valuable items, closing portals, toughing out Hydra escape vehicles and more – and as I explained earlier this year in my Midnight Suns preview, more reinforcements will come at the end of each turn. That means there are often a lot of pieces in play, but the joy of Midnight Suns is twisting and bending the ruleset to your advantage, and seeing how far you can stretch a single turn before you give in and call it a day.
Fast cards, for example, refund your deck if you land a KO with it, while others get stronger if you use one of your limited redraw options on them. Iron Man’s entire deal is built around the idea of hacking the game’s own rulebook to power up his attacks, while former X-Men and current Midnight Sun member Magik can throw free portal cards to capture or knock enemies back to locations of your choosing, and them prime targets for, say, Captain Marvel to land a map-wide photon beam on them, or for Ghost Rider to tear up the map with his flaming Hell Ride. It’s the same kind of unrelenting power flex that made Gears Tactics so entertaining, turning the jittery energy of XCOM’s will-they-won’t-they into a flashier romp of strategic tenacity.
To further sweeten the deal, the battlefields themselves are full of painful possibilities, offering even more of the rapid-fire improvisation that feeds its overarching superhero fantasy. The junction boxes you’d crouch behind in a more fearful game now crackle with live wires begging for a goon to be thrown into their open belly, while lampposts and cranes wait to be brought down on enemy heads. Crates, aircon units and piles of wooden pallets can launch heroes into the air to deliver the classic smackdowns from above, and heck, you can even throw stacks of Daily Bugle newspapers at their ugly mugs too. Print is dying, so you might as well drag some curls into the grave on the way out.
However, such feats are not freely available. To unleash special heroic attacks and environmental flourishes, you must build up a heroism level by playing basic attack and support cards, reviving the age-old risk-reward dilemma as you chew over which card to play next. The resulting strategy experience feels like a neat trade-off between the immediacy and improvisation of reacting to the hand you’re dealt on a given turn and keeping one eye on future potential; it’s not a gimmick you can rely on (something I find often pops up in XCOM-alikes), but it’s also not entirely reliant on the in-the-moment optimization that sometimes leaves Into The Breach feeling like a puzzle with a “correct” ‘ solution. It is deftly done.
Every attack, special or otherwise, has been gleefully choreographed for maximum self-satisfaction.
Through it all, this special shoutout has to go to Firaxis’ art and animation team for bringing the core superhero fantasy to life. Every attack, special or otherwise, has been gleefully choreographed for maximum self-satisfaction, making excellent use of slow-mo, screen shake and sound design to really make it feel like you’re packing a super-powered wallop. It’s clear that this is a team that really gets what makes Marvel tick, and nowhere is that more prevalent than when you’re out of combat hanging out at your base.
Located in a handy little pocket dimension near Salem, Massachusetts, The Abbey is effectively the haunted, witchy equivalent of Mass Effect’s Normandy, providing a base camp to freely roam and chill with fellow supes. However, you don’t play as a Marvel hero here. Instead, Midnight Suns puts you in the lycra tights of The Hunter, an original hero co-created by Firaxis and the comic book minds at Marvel, whose mother also happens to be the big, bad demon queen Lilith (awks). Classically, her journey is one of light versus dark, and players can choose to bring out these qualities through an extensive set of dialogue options.
Fortunately, this is not simply a case of light equals good and dark equals bad. While the choices you make affect the types of cards and abilities Hunter has at his disposal, the same tactics won’t necessarily apply to your fellow superheroes. For example, some people actually appreciate you taking a more neutral stance in certain situations, while others find it offensive if you try to be too goody two-shoes all the time, both in your everyday conversations and in your Fire Emblem and post-mission persona. -style one-on-one hang outs. (Alas, there’s no romance to be found in the latter, but there are still fun little hints and digs along the way. Case in point: at one point, Blade starts a book club that’s clearly an attempt to impress Captain Marvel, and it’s arguably the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.)
All of this adds a welcome depth to both the heroes and your interactions with them, especially when much of the story sees you playing peacemaker between the feuding factions of the world famous Avengers and the younger upstarts of the Midnight Suns. Admittedly, there are moments where team-wide divisions risk derailing the fast and frothy fun of their turn-based battles – I found Midnight Suns’ leader Caretaker to be a particularly sad hangover – but it rarely tips over into outright frustration. For the most part, Firaxis’ writers have a lot of fun with these characters. Their jibes and witty comebacks feel very much of a piece with their MCU counterparts, but crucially they still feel like they retain their own distinct personalities – a gulf Square Enix’s ill-fated Marvel’s Avengers games have never quite bridged .
Do they allow you to form the same type of attachment as your typical XCOM team? Probably not. They can’t die, for one thing, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to do here. For all its silly jokes and snipes, Marvel’s Midnight Suns really goes a long way in its script, tackling deep and sensitive subjects with surprising tact and nuance. I’m far from a Marvel cheerleader — the series lost me when I sat through eight minutes of credits to see Harry Styles and a CG leprechaun — but even I found plenty to invest in here.
That’s partly because Abbey is also where you can jump into the broader XCOM-style strategy layer. Just, you know, with a fun Avengers twist. Doctor Strange is your chief scientist, unlocking new upgrades and abilities for everyone, Iron Man uses his technical nous to open new card caches to add to your deck, while Blade runs the Abbey gym, allowing you to spar with other supes for stat and friendship bonuses and combine duplicate cards to make them more powerful. Captain Marvel, meanwhile, runs Hero Op missions off-screen, designed to give you even more rewards that can go back into strengthening your deck. Granted, it’s not going to trouble the minds that have mastered XCOM’s meta-game layers, but it’s another good way Firaxis combines the popcorn accessibility of its subject matter with the expectations of a tougher genre.
Along with its RPG elements, this social side of Marvel’s Midnight Suns scratches the exact same itch that Fire Emblem and Persona did before it, making the quieter moments feel just as important as the turn-based battles. XCOM did that too, of course, but you don’t need a sixth Spidey sense to see that there’s a lot more going on here. It’s more of a writerly experience than watching your grandma get punched in the face by a psi zombie in your custom XCOM squad, but I think it’s okay to put your story in someone else’s hands when they’re as competent as this. At the end of the day, XCOM still exists, still inspires many other games and can still be returned by Firaxis should they wish; I’m happy to see them try something new and with big ambitions. What’s important is that Marvel’s Midnight Suns resists the bloat that so often comes with that ambition, keeping the brain and gut feeling lean and inextricably linked at all times. It’s a big and sprawling adventure, but there’s no ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’ about it. Percentages be damned: this is a guaranteed hit with Marvel and strategy fans alike.